Murphy said this test could be our ‘salvation.’ So why isn’t it in nursing homes? | Editorial

Gov. Phil Murphy has done well steering our state through this pandemic, but one big stain on his record is nursing homes.

He blundered in numerous ways: Putting hospitals first, even as the death toll exploded in the nursing homes, failing to get them protective equipment and test kits quickly, and forcing them to take COVID patients from hospital wards.

Now it looks like another misstep is in the works. Rutgers has developed an excellent COVID test that is faster and easier – you just spit in a tube, and it’s analyzed by a lab in 24 to 48 hours.

Nursing homes need it, desperately. It’s not easy to shove a swab down the nasal cavity of an 80-year-old dementia patient, let alone get the results back in a timely manner. Yet they still don’t have it, as we face the threat of a possible resurgence.

Neither do veteran’s homes, which saw the worst death rates. Murphy said this rapid test could be the source of our “salvation” back in April. So why don’t we even have it in our own state-run homes?

Both NJ Transit and Port Authority are further ahead in line, which is disappointing. It shows a lack of urgency where the fire is burning hottest.

“You put your quickest, most accurate test in your most vulnerable population,” as Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health says. “That’s what should be happening.”

State-run psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers have shown progress on this, too, but the nursing home industry has been mired in bureaucracy with the state, NJ Advance Media’s Ted Sherman reports.

Under state guidelines, only slower swab testing has been allowed, and they haven’t been able to require testing for visitors, like a state inspector or a family member. Requiring temperature checks helps make people feel calm, but offers little protection, since so many infected people are asymptomatic, Halkitis notes.

And even though nursing homes now test their staffers weekly, they often don’t get results for several days, making the tests useless. An infected caregiver without symptoms could stay on the job for a week while awaiting results, infecting your grandma.

Aside from the deep nasal swab, another option exists – a faster antigen test that nursing homes can get for free from the Trump administration. We understand why the state has been reluctant to use this, given that some of the tests give false results as much as 50 percent of the time, experts warn.

That’s no better than a coin toss. It’s a tough call, but this only underscores the urgency of getting the more accurate saliva test in gear.

Murphy’s administration had vowed to provide $25 million for the weekly testing of nursing home staff, along with priority access to this Rutgers test. But they haven’t given nursing homes clear guidance on how to get it until just now.

Meanwhile, visitors are still going in and out, untested, potentially bringing COVID with them. There’s high demand for these saliva test kits, to be sure, as well as the timely ability to analyze the samples at labs. But why has the roll-out been the slowest at the very center of the outbreak?

More than 7,100 nursing home residents and staffers have died, many of them infected by people who came in from the outside, and survivors remain in danger. Time for Murphy to deliver.

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